Teaching the alphabet; should we focus on the letters or sounds?

Andrea Cooper
Senior Speech Pathologist

Our preschool children are surprising us each day with the new things they learn at GoKindy. Through their exploration and interactions, they pick up new language and skills to prepare them for school in a few years. Some become excited about counting, writing their names and singing the alphabet song. However, for some children these skills may be a little harder to attain.

Phonological Awareness

It can be tricky to know where to start when teaching your pre-schooler the alphabet. They may not be thrilled with the idea of alphabet cards or a poster on the wall. Below I will share some ideas of how you can teach these skills to your child. But first let me tell you why learning the alphabet is important.

Before learning to read and spell children need a set of preliteracy skills known as phonological awareness skills.
Phonological awareness is the ability to identify, manipulate and “play” with sounds and words.

Phonological awareness involves an awareness that words can:

  • be broken up into beats or syllables (butt-er-fly)
  • rhyme (look, book, cook)

At the sound (phoneme) level, phonological awareness involves awareness that words can:

  • start with the same sound (bear, bug)
  • be segmented into the first sound (ball, b-all)
  • be formed by blending separate sounds together (c-a-t makes cat)
  • be segmented into separate sounds (sh-i-p)
  • be changed or manipulated by removing, adding or reordering sounds within the word to make a different word (flip without the f says lip)

It also involves the awareness that a letter shape represents a sound.

Over my next few blogs I will be sharing strategies with you about how you can develop these early literacy skills.

Studies have shown that for early reading success it is important that the child has strong phonological awareness skills. A child’s level of phonological awareness prior to school is one of the best predictors of their later reading development.

Now we know why phonological awareness is important, let me share with you ways to teach the alphabet effectively.

Knowing the ‘alphabet’ versus knowing the ‘alphabet song’

First, it is important to note that knowing the sequence of the alphabet ‘by heart’ is different to identifying each letter in a random order. We all know the alphabet song, our children hear it every time they watch Sesame Street, but can they actually tell us each letter if we were to present it in a different order? One way to check is to ask your child to say the alphabet instead of singing it. By saying the alphabet slowly and pointing to each letter we will hopefully eliminate the sped up “alemenopy”, that is often said in the middle of the song. It is also important to disrupt the sequence; instead of starting at the letter “A” , try starting at “m”. By practicing saying the alphabet in this way you will identify if your child ‘knows the alphabet’ or just ‘knows the alphabet song’.

Letters and Sounds

Knowing the names of the letters in the alphabet is useful. When children are learning how to spell their names or other unfamiliar words we often say the names of the letters (e.g. “a”, “b” and “c”, we pronounce as “ay”, “bee” and “see”, respectively). Knowing the names helps us learn the associated sounds. For example, in Year One we might hear a child saying “The letter ‘C’ (see) can say two sounds… /k/ and /s/ but when it’s with the letter ‘H’, it says /ch/.

However, the name of each letter is not the same as the sound it makes. For example, we say “bee” for the name of the letter /b/. But when we say /b/ aloud, it is a short sound made with our lips. It is the first sound of “book”, we don’t say “bee-ook”.

This can be confusing for our little learners. It is therefore important that we teach our letter names and sounds together, e.g. “This is the letter ‘aytch’ it makes a /h/ sound, ‘aytch’…. /h/”.
Knowing the sounds of each letter is actually a lot more useful than knowing its name. We use the knowledge of letter sounds to decode (sound out) words. Children who only know the letter names will try to use the names rather than the sounds when decoding words, for example “cat” will be broken up as “see…ay..tee” rather than “/c-a-t/”.

As such, it is really important when teaching your child a letter, that you stress the sound(s) that the letter makes. For example; “This is the letter “t” [pronounced “tee”]. It says /t/ [not “tuh”], as in “tea” or “torch”.

It is important that when teaching short “plosive” sounds like /p, b, d, t, k, g/ do not add an “uh” to the end of the sound – it’s /k/, not “kuh”; /d/, not “duh”; and so on. Otherwise, you end up with your child saying “puhat” for “pat”.

Capitals and Lower-case letters

In the preschool years children are usually exposed to more capital letters. Capital letters appear more on preschoolers’ toys and in alphabet books and posters. Most of the capitals are easier for our little learners to form compared to lower-case, and as such are included in more preschool resources.

However, the ability to recognise lower-case (uncapitalised) letters is critical for reading as most of what we read is made up of lower-case letters. Often we will ask our preschool children to copy their name in lowercase (except for the first letter which is always a capital, of course). So make sure you also show what the letter looks like in lower case form, too.

The order

There are 26 letters in the alphabet, so it can be tricky knowing where to start. We find it best to start with the letters that are more meaningful to your child… that is, the letters in their own name. Preschoolers and Kindergarten kids are usually better at recognising the first letter of their name than other letters.

Some researchers have suggested that it is ideal to teach both lower and upper case letters (and their sounds) based on the order of speech sound acquisition. Below are the suggested orders from two studies:

1. Lehr (2000) (lower-case, based principally on the order of speech-sound acquisition in children):

Pre-school kids: n, w, p, h, m, a, b, k, d, f, o, c, e, y, g, t, s, r, z, i, q, v, l, u, j, x

Kindergarten kids: m, t, f, n, h, a, p, z, b, i, s, d, u, v, l, w, o, r, g, e, j, c, k, y, q, x

2. Carnine, Silbert & Kame’enui (1997) (lower- and upper-case)

a, m, t, s, i, f, d, r, o, g, l, h, u, c, b, n, k, v, e, w, j, p, y, T, L, M, F, D, I, N, A, R, H, G, B, x, q, z, J, E, Q

Creative and engaging learning

In addition to the flash cards, alphabet books and posters, teach letter names and sounds in a fun and engaging way.
Make letters out of playdoh, paint the letters on cardboard, draw them in the sand, write them in chalk on the concrete then jump from one letter to the other, saying the letter name and sound as you go. You could also hide letters around the house, playing a hunting game.

For more information and useful strategies please see the links below:
https://www.pelicantalk.com/resources/Articles/45.%20Alphabet%20Learning.pdf https://www.themeasuredmom.com/teaching-the-alphabet-to-preschoolers-why-and-how/

Happy Talking,
Andrea

References:

1. Lehr, F. R. (2000). The Sequence of Speech-Sound Acquisition in the Letter People Programs. Waterbury, CT: Abrams & Company

2. Kinnane, D. (2017, Feb 19) Teaching the alphabet to your child? Here’s what you need to know. Retrieved from: https://www.banterspeech.com.au/teaching-the-alphabet-to-your-child-heres-what-you-need-to-know/

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